–– Last of a three-part series ––

If nature runs its slow course, West Valley’s hilltop plateau where nuclear wastes are stockpiled could erode in as soon as 150 years.

Or, some fear that fueled by dramatic climatic events, the plateau could wash away in torrential downpours like the one that hit nearby Gowanda four summers ago.

Either way, radioactive material would wash through several feeder streams into Cattaraugus Creek and then into Lake Erie, the Niagara River and on into Lake Ontario, fouling the drinking water for millions of people in Western New York and southern Ontario.

More than 40 years after the nation’s only commercial effort to reprocess nuclear fuel was closed down, the West Valley nuclear waste site is arguably Western New York’s most toxic location. Despite billions of dollars in federal spending – and ambitious efforts to turn highly radioactive waste into something safer and easier to manage – West Valley remains a dangerous place.

Located in northern Cattaraugus County less than 50 miles from Buffalo, West Valley has 275 two-foot-wide stainless steel canisters containing highly radioactive glass – byproducts of a groundbreaking six-year process designed to stabilize liquid nuclear waste. The canisters are stacked in the belly of the main plant behind six-foot-thick protective concrete and glass. Separately, lower-level radioactive waste is buried in two underground storage areas.

Among the highly toxic elements present at the three West Valley sites: cesium, strontium, thorium, uranium and plutonium. The longest lasting radioactive element on site – Thorium-232 – has a half-life of more than 14 billion years.

Federal law says the most-toxic waste – the glass in the steel canisters – must eventually be moved out of West Valley, likely out West. But for now, the West Valley waste has nowhere to go. Federal statutes provide depository space only for high-level nuclear waste used in weapons programs, not byproducts of commercial nuclear energy uses.

“Water, water, water,” said Joanne E. Hameister of the West Valley Citizen Task Force, a group closely monitoring the site. “The overarching concern is water. If you think about radioactivity getting into the water intake – I don’t care what level it’s at – it’s going to contaminate all the infrastructure of the water intake, and then it goes into the sewer outflow and into our lakes. Our whole infrastructure could be affected.”

How West Valley grew

Most of the most deadly materials are remnants from the 1960s partnership between the private company Nuclear Fuel Services and state and federal governments in a collaborative cutting-edge effort to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The reprocessing occurred at West Valley from 1966 to 1972 but was closed down following regulatory reform of the nuclear industry. Left behind were 600,000 gallons of liquid, high-level radioactive waste.

In 1980, Congress passed a plan to contain and remove the liquid waste. Since then, 875 spent fuel assemblies have been removed, the toxic liquid waste has been turned into glass, and work has begun to put the 275 stainless steel canisters in a safer place.

Low-level radioactive waste is leaving the site for destinations in Utah and Nevada regularly nowadays – nearly 1 million cubic feet dating back to 1998, about the volume of 11 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Full remediation of the site is estimated to be a $6 billion to $8 billion endeavor.

Bryan C. Bower, director of the project for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the risk is ameliorated so long as the site is maintained and remains under constant government watch. “Our job is to make sure, while we’re here, that catastrophic release never occurs,” said Bower, acknowledging that some citizens may be “disappointed at the pace” of efforts to clean up the site.

Until the government finds a place to send the most toxic waste, it plans to build better storage at West Valley.

Starting in 2015, as part of the site’s decommissioning process, the high-level waste canisters will, one by one, be robotically shifted into a nearby building. There, they will be packed five at a time inside 55 stainless steel-covered, two-foot-thick concrete cask lined with carbon steel for permanent storage. That will take three years.

Then the 55 concrete casks, which are being designed now, will be moved onto an above-ground, 110-by-144-foot concrete pad that is three feet thick at West Valley. Bower said the casks are licensed for 50 years and are impervious to external environmental conditions.

Bower noted similarly designed casks performed flawlessly in Japan during the 2011 earthquake there that resulted in the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor.

West Valley’s casks, Bower said, would remain on the concrete pad until a permanent federal repository is established, then they will be transported, likely by rail, somewhere out West, to be buried a mile or so underground.

“You never have to touch it again, never have to open it again,” he said.

The strontium plume

When activists paint the dangers of keeping high-level waste in West Valley, they point to the strontium plume.

Sometime between the late 1960s and early 1970s, radioactive strontium escaped from the nuclear fuel-reprocessing site and started slowly seeping toward the water table. Strontium is dangerous. If ingested, it deposits itself in bone and bone marrow. It is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone and leukemia, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“There’s this giant dragon just there, and it’s very alive,” said Judith Einach, a member of the Coalition on West Valley Wastes.

The plume is slow-moving. So far, it hasn’t gone much beyond the building it leaked from. Since 1995, federal managers have been trying to stop the plume. After a pair of marginally successful experimental ventures, in 2010 they built a sophisticated 860-foot-long underground barrier “wall” that is three feet wide and up to 30 feet deep in places.

The wall has seemed to quell that tide for now, Bower said. Filters in the underground wall at the West Valley site catch the strontium and keep nearly all of it from entering the groundwater.

The other waste

The other waste stored at West Valley – a pair of underground, low-level waste disposal areas and buried high-level tanks on site – poses a tough choice, Bower said. Environmental activists want them exhumed and removed from West Valley. Bower said the long-term risks of keeping that material on site, which could threaten the local area, must be weighed against the costs and risks of transporting it to places off-site, which could threaten the workers who excavate it and those who could come in contact with it during transport and during its eventual re-deposit where ever that might be.

Said Bower: “It’s about weighing the risks. There’s nothing that’s risk-free.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com